"Okay," I said. "Now I'm mad."

Five years, a virtual lifetime ago. The week before, Alex Smith had returned from a two-year hiatus, and we'd shocked the Texans—though we didn't quite beat them—by abandoning the head coach's outdated offensive approach. We stretched the field, we threw every down, and out of the blue our offense exploded. And I naturally assumed that the coach would be perceptive enough to realize the obvious: Hey, this works. Maybe we'll try to keep this up.

Instead, the next week, we abandoned it. We resumed the coach's boneheaded plodding, which produced a home-run and nothing else. But then, with our two-minute drill at the end of the half, we did it again. We spread out the D, put Smith in the 'gun, and marched down the field for an easy score.

Again I thought we'd notice the difference, but again we packed that offense away. We had 14 points, and even though we were on the road, against Peyton Manning, we were going to sit on those points. And we did. Until, of course, they weren't enough.

"Okay," I said. "Now I'm mad."

Eventually, when the season had all but slipped away, the players spoke up. Vernon Davis asserted that we ought to "take advantage of things we can take advantage of, and if that means spread the ball, maybe we need to do that." Added precocious rookie Michael Crabtree: "That would be good. ... I really can do something in that spread."

"But that's not up to me," Davis observed. "That's up to our offensive coordinator." Who soon thereafter was run out of town, with the head coach following, hot on his heels.

Now here we are. Five years, a virtual lifetime later. Things have changed, and yet, as they say, they've stayed much the same.

A week after Crabtree and Anquan Boldin (and I) essentially begged Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman to open things up, they went out and did it. They stretched the field, with four and even five wide receivers. They went no-huddle. They threw (on nearly) every down. And Colin Kaepernick responded, spectacularly. Perfectly executing perfect decisions, he led a 12-play, 80-yard drive, on which he was 7-of-7 for 61 yards and a score. (And he ran for the other 19 yards.) And then, he did it again, this time with 14 plays on which he was 4-of-5 for 33 yards (and ran for another 25).

With the field stretched, and with his full assortment of deadly weapons, he was every ounce of what he should be: the greatest dual-threat there is.

I naturally assumed that the coaches would be perceptive enough to realize the obvious: Hey, this works. But instead we packed that offense away. We didn't retreat into an old-school run-first shell—Kaepernick had more rushes than Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde combined—but we reverted to more conventional formations, which allowed the Cardinals, who'd been utterly flummoxed by those first two drives, to settle in defensively. And even as the punts piled up, we never truly unleashed it again.

"In the second half," as Kaepernick said, making no secret of his thoughts on the subject, "we ran it [only] here and there."

In other words, we had 14 points, and even though we were on the road, with a defense ravaged by suspension and injury, we were prepared to sit on those points. And we did. Until, of course, they weren't enough.

And again the unraveling began with the refs. But whereas last week the flags were largely deserved, this week the Niners retook their place at the crosshairs of the officials' incompetence. Back-to-back personal fouls for hard hits on the quarterback—both perfectly legal—set up the Cardinals' go-ahead score, and another on Boldin during the Niners' ensuing drive—without an offsetting one for the "inappropriate language" that obviously induced it—scuttled a touchdown and pretty much sucked out the Niners' will.

There's no conspiracy. But clearly, though, there's "confirmation bias," the psychological tendency to interpret things in ways that confirm one's existing beliefs. By now, the Niners' reputation—as hard-hitters who walk right on the line between good and evil—has gotten bigger than any of them. So whereas a Seattle Seahawk—despite his team's actual lawlessness—can simply take a pre-snap stroll into the Broncos' backfield and avoid a flag for being offsides, every call that's even close will always go against the Niners. And as Boldin put it, that crap is certainly costing us games.

With some justification, the Niners have come under fire for failing to stay disciplined. But a person can handle only so much. As the inequity mounts—with each flag gleefully accepted by our opponents, who frankly should be ashamed of themselves—eventually the fight goes out. Out of the Niners, and even, sadly, out of one of their passionate fans.

But our biggest issue wasn't the flags. It was once again our coaches' stubborn reluctance to keep the pedal pinned to the floor. By playing aggressively, by exploiting all their weaponry, they had the Cardinals back on their heels. If they'd simply kept going, they would've won this game in a rout. But, instead, they simply stopped.

And with the season already slipping away, the players are speaking up, again. "We moved the ball well whenever we got five wide," said Boldin, clearly questioning why we ever got anything else. "Whenever we [go with] five wide receivers on the field, teams are going to have a tough time stopping us."

For his part, Harbaugh didn't discount the possibility that the spread might become a regular thing. "Can be, yes," he said. "We showed some real positives out of that set."

That sounds great, Coach, but too much like a lie, a lie I was told five years ago, a lie that I had the gall to believe: "The absolute best thing I saw this week was I saw leadership on the offensive side of the ball in terms of, 'Coach, this is what I think would work. ... Can we do more spread?' To me, that's leadership."

So forgive me, Coach. I never imagined that you'd be anything like the man you replaced. On countless occasions, I've gone so far as to call you a genius. But in this season that feels ever more like it might be the end, I can summon only one reaction.

You're starting to look exactly like him.